I was meaning to link to this piece from the NYTimes blog, Motherlode, some time ago. I guess it got away from me with the end of the semester and all. But it’s not time-sensitive and since I’m in catch-up mode, I’ll do it now.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the importance of genetic linkage between parent and child on this blog. Much of it has been spurred by various topics related to assisted reproductive technology (ART). When a couple uses ART to create a child, the child is often not genetically related to both of its parents. Sometimes it is not related to either. And this, of course, is also true in adoption.
I’m well-aware that some readers place great store in genetic linkage and would shape future public policy around it. But whatever weight is attached to genetic linkage in formulating future policy, it’s also worth considering how we deal with that linkage (and more particularly with its absence) in presently existing families.
There are millions of adoptive children in the world. These children are being raised by parents who are not genetically related to them. Stressing the importance of genetic linkage has the effect, whether it is intended or not, of undermining these children’s family’s.
This is poignantly illustrated by the piece I’ve linked to. Jenni Levi and David Smith have a ten-year-old adopted daughter. As part of a science class she was to ask her parents about various genetically determined traits. But of course, the adopted daughter couldn’t have inherited genetically determined traits from either of her parents. For her, all the assignment lead her to was the conclusion “I’m not really in your family.”
It’s easy to see the damage that is done by this lesson. And I’m fairly confident that it is unintentional. No one meant to be undermine the child’s family. But this doesn’t make it less hurtful.
Like the authors of the piece, I do believe in science and I certainly believe that children should be taught genetics as part of a sound science education. I’m not a science teacher and so I wouldn’t know how to proceed from there, but David Smith happens to train science teachers. He said:
I know that kids need to learn that offspring of all species tend to look like their biological parents. It’s one of the fundamental underpinnings of an understanding of genetics. That doesn’t mean, however, that kids have to learn this from their own biological parents.”
“The pedagogical solution to this problem is easy. Teachers should teach population biology (there’s a great collaborative activity at k12science.org, for example) instead of pedigree genetics. Kids still learn that offspring resemble their biological parent, but they also learn that not all dominant traits are common. Exploring this phenomenon allows students to begin to come to grips with natural selection and the fact that dominance and advantage are separate things.”
Two other points worth noting. First, though the people here are writing about adoption, kids in many other situations will have the same experience. Lots of kids don’t live with those they are genetically related to for a host of reasons.
second, genetics lessons aren’t the only place where schools tend to isolate kids whose families don’t fit into the genetically related mom/dad package. Father’s day and mother’s day present all sorts of issues for children whose families lack one or the other (or perhaps contain two of one). Family tree exercises that only offer specified slots (two parents, each of whom have two parents, and so on) pose problems. The solution that David Smith offered here makes me think that there are creative solutions to all of these sorts of problems, if we just see that the problems exist.